[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 05/11/1990]
“A private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all.” – William Wilberforce
Having established his MO with “I” [1×01], Kieslowski immediately set out to widen the frontiers of his project with a story that’s less about tangible Biblical punishment for breaking one of the Commandments, and more about people having to live in a period of moral uncertainty where the eventual outcome will change them forever, as happiness is not guaranteed by any result of their decisions.
“II” retains the three-hander structure of “I” [1×01] in its presentation of a story in which Dorota, a violinist with the Philharmonic Orchestra, wrestles with a decision about whether or not to abort her child, a byproduct of an extra-martial affair. The decision is crucially influenced by her husband’s condition – Andrzej is bed-bound in hospital, slowly ebbing away with a life-threatening disease (established as cancer when this story is presented as a case study in “VIII” [1×08]).
If he survives, she will abort the baby; if he dies, she will go through with the birth, though whether or not this means she will stay with the father is uncertain. Although abortion forms a common discourse on ethics, the decision regarding whether or not the child is ‘human’, or has a soul isn’t important here. As noted before, Kieslowski isn’t interested in presenting the Commandments to the letter, and certainly not in arguing solely from a Christian standpoint just because the Bible is the source. What he is interested in is people, and their actions in the face of death. Though neither the unborn child nor Andrzej die in the course of the story, death hangs oppressively over the episode, and until the final, ‘miraculous’ scene, seems certain for at least one party.
Dorota’s demeanour signifies her as one of the coldest characters in the series. Aloof and selfish, her unhappiness is conveyed less by words than by (in)action. When we first meet her, she is gazing out of the window, longing for an answer to be provided for her. She smokes like a chimney, her cigarettes held uneasily between shaking fingers.
Though she seldom speaks, trapped inside her private world, she can easily be provoked into speaking her mind when angry, such as when she snarls at the local doctor whose dog she once ran over (claiming it should have been him) or when she watches him leave the block and takes out her frustrations on a defenceless potted plant. She also goes ballistic at her husband’s friend when he brings over his mountaineering equipment, stating defiantly that he could at least wait until he’s dead. Her impassioned outburst invites sympathy from the audience, as though she has cheated on Andrzej, moments like these (not to say the least about her frequent hospital visits) establish that she’s not simply deserted him, and genuinely hopes that he pulls through. As she explains to the doctor in his apartment, she loves different aspects of two different men – warmth and stability from Andrzej, and presumably sex from the third party.
The doctor to whom she turns on these black days suffers from a similar coldness, although his attitude is more of a reaction to brutal circumstance. As evidenced by how we witness his time in the apartment, he is almost invariably alone and silent, the monotony of his situation broken sporadically by visits from his cleaner Barbara. I like to think that we aren’t given the benefit of his name because he doesn’t feel he truly exists beyond his occupation; he certainly doesn’t to Dorota.
Barbara regularly sits with him to listen to his life story, in which he describes moments of tenderness and tragedy, always with a sense of detachment. Perhaps he has simply repeated the story too often (perhaps spasmodically in his head), or maybe he has simply compartmentalised his feelings on the matter to make the pain less acute. Having lost his entire family to a bombing during World War II, he now faces a modicum of survivor’s guilt and a sense of being cheated by fate. In the absence of others to care for, he now dotes on his houseplants and sickly budgie.
Aside from his storytelling, the only time his non-professional persona is broken is when Dorota comes to him demanding to know her husband’s prognosis. Rather like Krzysztof in “I” [1×01], the doctor isn’t equipped with concrete prediction, though signs seem to indicate towards the negative.
Though they’d never admit it to each other, Dorota and the doctor’s temperaments are almost directly parallel, and after the initial explosive confrontation (in which Dorota isn’t invited in), both find their harsh, detached exteriors slowly but surely permitting the other side in. With no-one to care for in his life, the doctor suddenly finds himself not only invested in the life of another, but at the centre of a decision pertaining potentially to the deaths of strangers, as if his first taste of human interaction in years has presented him with a guillotine.
After breaking down many walls, in which Dorota is not only permitted to enter the doctor’s flat but also to smoke around him, he is surprised to find her candidly confiding her position to him, and that she has faith in God, despite her cavalier attitude to relationships and abortion. When asked if he reciprocates, the doctor claims to have a God of his own, which seems entirely appropriate given his position as the last survivor of a family tragedy and an individual isolated by the circumstance (loneliness is common throughout the Dekalog, and it perhaps no truer here).
She hounds him outside of work and home (he amusingly finds himself trying to give her the slip when she tails him in her car) and upon coming home one evening, the near-immediate doorbell prompts him to turn around a family photo, such is his confidence that Dorota will be the unexpected visitor.
But though Dorota has confided in him regarding her baby and the affair, it is curious to note that when later pressed for details on Andrzej’s condition, the doctor lies, but only after more pieces of the puzzle have fitted into place – he finds an ambiguous something (the disease or the treatment?) is progressing under the microscope, and Dorota informs him she has already arrived at her decision to abort, after her gynaecologist claimed it was her last opportunity to do so.
So if the doctor does believe in God (or at least a God), or indeed the Commandments have any bearing on our lives, what persuades him to swear on a falsehood when provoked (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain)? Here we find the moral greys of the issue.
If he is to claim that Andrzej will survive, the abortion is certain, and a potential life will be snuffed out. But by stating that he has only 15% chance of survival, the doctor can at least ensure that Dorota will retract on her decision and give the child a chance. The doctor’s claim hinges on his own experiences – had he not lost his own family in a single fell blow, it is doubtful he would even consider breaking his oath.
But by shouldering his own pain and isolation in light of tragedy, he at least gives proffers a chance at life for one who again would be cheated of it otherwise. It is not, I feel, a selfish act for the doctor to extend sympathy in light of relatability, rather that he encourages familial happiness in others, even in someone he hitherto despised (given Dorota’s constant smoking whilst pregnant, it’s questionable if she’d even make a good mother). This act may possibly condemn his soul, but it may at least offer him some sense of closure for his twilight years, especially when he witnesses the freshly-revitalised Andrzej’s joy in the prospect of becoming a father.
Andrzej’s revival is a masterwork of subtle direction and writing. After his near-death experience, he seems imbued with a sudden zeal to get back on his feet, literally, his pale features now the sole indication that he was even ill until this point. When he enters the doctor’s office, he emerges under a strong yet isolated light, almost as if… blessed. The light is of course, artificial, which is often the crux of Kieslowski’s presentation of faith – although a rational explanation may exist, the appearance suggests divination, and given the unlikelihood of any sort of recovery, it wouldn’t be uncharitable to describe his sudden fortitude as miraculous.
He expounds upon his experiences to his guardian, who has now become something of a godfather to their unborn child. His health has not only been restored, but his entire outlook on life. He looks forward to new fatherhood, and has fresh hope about his marriage. He doesn’t seem concerned about the difficulty the couple had experienced in conceiving, nor suspects that Dorota may have been unfaithful. Perhaps he knows, but as with Roman in “IX” [1×09], his recovery and her continued presence are enough to re-establish their relationship. Maybe any perceived or established transgressions mean precious little in the face of survival.
Ultimately, “”II” is about communication. Dorota and the doctor are both isolated individuals, but this chance meeting has thrust them together. They are hardly friends, and do not become such over the course of the story. But by maintaining some sort of investment in each others’ lives, barriers begin to collapse and both learn to live again. There are barely any words between Dorota and Andrzej, but there’s similarly few between her and her lover when they share a phone conversation, culminating in her cutting him off as he exclaims “I love you”, severing the connection at the moment she might be expected to reciprocate. Andrzej similarly can’t communicate at all until he rejoins the living.
“I realised how many areas of life a documentary can’t cover. And then I started to move from social and political issues, which a documentary can easily deal with, to stories about interactions between people. And lately it seems to me that I make films about people’s innermost thoughts and emotions, about what they don’t show to anyone. All the films I make are about the need to open up. About the need to communicate on another level, rather than just talking about the quality of wine, car prices, etc. You have to break through the barrier of shame, and the feeling that you mustn’t be weak. That’s what I think.” – Krzysztof Kieslowski
Compared to the deliberately insular nature of “I” [1×01], “II” fair radiates with connections to the rest of the series:
The mountaineering photos in Dorota’s apartment are mirrored by the massive expedition poster in Anka’s room, representative of an adventurer in spirit in both parties, despite (or perhaps because of) their circumstantial anchors to the Warsaw apartment block.
One of Dorota’s many periods of frustrated isolation is broken by the arrival of the same postman who delivers the phoney money orders to Madga in “VI” [1×06], and seems very particular and professional about his job in both (which is more than can be said of that episode’s protagonist Tomek).
When the doctor claims “I just don’t know” when pressured on Andrzej’s condition, the same is claimed by Krzysztof in “I” [1×01] when Pawel asks him about his beliefs. Neither can be sure, but it is of vital importance to the other person that they arrive at a certainty. Thankfully, the doctor’s confidence in science is less firm than Krzysztof’s, as the stakes are arguably just as high.
Dorota is the guilty party in an extra-martial affair, just like Hanka in “IX” [1×09] – interestingly, neither of these women wish to separate from their husbands, and both benefit from Kieslowski’s humanism – neither is harangued for their behaviour or attitude.
Dorota receives a letter from her paramour and is hesitant to reply (her efforts are interrupted by the postman’s arrival – sheer coincidence? I think not!). This not only reinforces the theme of communication but extends a topical parallel to Anka’s elephant-in-the-room letter situation in “IV” [1×04].
Most significantly, all three of the main characters appear once more apiece in other stories. Dorota and Andrzej turn up in “V” [1×05] where they unsuccessfully attempt to procure hail a taxi, which is naturally the same taxi whose driver finds himself strangled and beaten to death only hours later. Blind chance runs rampant in Dekalog, so had the driver permitted the couple as a fare, he’d have undoubtedly wound up elsewhere at the moment Jacek decides to strike, thereby sparing his life. Andrzej and Dorota seem joyous and wholly comfortable here, making several tactile connections in their brief scene. Given how readily the driver exhibits his casual misanthropy, it’s conceivable that he only denies the couple because they seem happy, which speaks volumes about the cycle of hate and how happiness might be viewed with scorn and jealously in one’s peers.
When the doctor arrives in a lift in “IV” [1×04], it is to interrupt the uncomfortable silence between Anka and Michal upon Anka’s recital of her mother’s letter. Without saying a word to them, the spiritual and moral strength he has gained in this episode seem to comment on the unease of the current situation. Though the letter has seemingly exposed a falsehood that would permit the ‘father’ and ‘daughter’ to make their relationship sexual, neither party seems willing to make the first move, or even to tackle the ethical problem at hand, such is the queasiness of the ordeal. So when the doctor wanders into their lives, they may look upon him and take some comfort in the knowledge that things were happy right up to that point – any alteration of the dynamic may ruin both lives, and no Dekalog protagonist holds onto fond memories more than the doctor. His unspoken participation can then be read as a warning about opening Pandora’s Box, and again we see Kieslowski’s humanism in full force.
And where would we be in Dekalog without Artur Barcis? In “II” his unspoken role is that of a hospital orderly. He first appears when the doctor is inspecting the samples under the microscope. Naturally this is the most important time for him to try to intervene, as the findings at this very moment are what compel the doctor to lie. In contrast to “I” [1×01], he goes completely unnoticed here, and is therefore incapable of imparting any wisdom to the doctor.
When he reappears it is to watch Dorota tenderly stroking Andrzej’s face as he lies crumpled in bed like so much roadside debris. It is arguable that no-one spots him this time either, but the shot is sandwiched between those of Andrzej looking at anything but Dorota, so it is certainly permissible to claim that only he can see the mystery man, which marks his first step to recovery. Nonetheless, the mystery man looks away, because he knows all to well that his mere presence isn’t always enough to elicit change.
As with most episodes of Dekalog, water figures into the visual tapestry. At the hospital, extreme closeups are granted to the dripping interiors, hardly instilling confidence in the quality of the treatment. The drips are witnessed by Andrzej alone, who has precious little else to occupy his senses whilst languishing in a pained delirium. The water seems in from unforgivably massive cracks in the plaster, occasionally dripping onto his face, momentarily stirring him from his reverie.
As he comments to the doctor following his recovery, he interpreted these ambient details as his world literally crumbling around him, the elements themselves breaking apart to exemplify natural decline. Ultimately his efforts to resist the white light find him fighting against the tumult and state of decay, and to rejoin the living – lest we forget that water claims Pawel in “I” [1×01]. Note also that Dorota has scattered the torn plant leaves around his bed, symbolic of her sense of futility and a clear contrast to the doctor’s efforts to nurture his own.
Water is not the only liquid that becomes subtly important to this episode. As with much of the Dekalog, milk, often symbolic of motherhood, finds its way into the story when we see the doctor going out to purchase it in the morning, then drinking it in his apartment later. In true Kieslowskian fashion, had he not happened to venture out when he did to make such a purchase, he and Dorota might not have made any connection as it is doubtful she would know his address otherwise, given that she essentially roots to the spot from before he leaves to his return. Note that Dorota, the questionable expecting mother, is never seeing drinking it.
When Barbara sits with the doctor for his storytelling, they imbibe tea together, making the enterprise less formal, despite his dispassionate report. Dorota intentionally smashes a full glass at home during of her long dark nights of the soul, simply to create some sort of impact that would at least break the monotony or to vent some frustration like she did with the houseplant.
And of course, in undoubtedly my favourite moment of the episode, Andrzej finally develops the strength and courage to leave his hospital bed when he watches a bee crawl perilously out of the strawberry syrup Dorota brought him earlier. This sequence is juxtaposed between a marvellous crane shot that directly connects Dorota with the doctor, both locked in uncertainty about the same situation, and Dorota’s performance in the Philharmonic. Her glance to the audience (and finally, a hint of smile!) allows us to make the connection that the doctor is present, as he promised in their last exchange. The wonderfully moving score by Zbigniew Preisner directly correlates the bee scene with Dorota’s attack on the houseplant, signifying the partners’ contrasting attitudes to nature via their emotional position on the scenario.
Ultimately, I feel it only fair to remark upon what holds “II” back in any way, and that’s in regards to its cinematography. Though it seems borderline absurd to complain about the style of any of Dekalog, Edward Klosinski’s work here simply isn’t as strong as that exhibited so marvellously in some of the other episodes, such as “I” [1×01], “V” [1×05], “VI” [1×06] and “IX” [1×09].
Indeed, where I’m spoiled for choice for screencaps from most of the episodes, here I find the afore-lauded bee scene and images of Dorota smoking by a window comfortably take my preference over anything else (it also explains why White is less visually impressive than the other entries in the Three Colours trilogy). Nevertheless, with such riches on display in the script and direction, one feels completely unjust in any sort of condemnation simply because the bar is set so very high elsewhere in the series.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The doctor’s pause when he first sees Dorota at the window, suggesting an unpleasant history before any dialogue is established. She is smoking at the time, and of course he knows she’s pregnant, so he might be pausing to consider stating a warning, but he’d rather not get involved at all. When footsteps follow him to his flat, he’s very reluctant to even answer the door.
+ The doctor’s story about his father’s self-extracted tooth might foreshadow his desire to enter the medical profession.
+ After Dorota attacks the houseplant and twists its stem, the plant tries to resist, futilely trying to stand up again. Its efforts mirror both Andrzej and the unborn baby’s situations, hovering between life and death.
+ When the doctor arrives at the hospital, he asks “Where is Gellar?” and is then perhaps surprised to find Dorota at his side.
+ The painting of a child in the doctor’s flat.
+ Dorota torches all of her matches in the box with her cigarette, exemplifying her snuffed-out dreams and casual sense of aggression.
+ The gynaecologist says ‘beauty’ three times to Dorota. Fairly unprofessional, but perhaps he’s simply trying to break through Dorota’s icy exterior.
+ The near-complete fade to black at the apartment complex before the concert.
– I have no idea what the hare is supposed to signify. Considering its discovery marks the start of the episode, I would have thought it was at least subtly important.